The Light At The End (US Review)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 28 October 2013 - Reviewed by Lani Smith

The Light at The End
Produced by Big Finish
Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: November 2013
The Light at The End was built up for quite some time as the true Doctor Who fan's 50th. Where many seemed fit to ignore the majority of the show's time, Big Finish, as per usual, decided to do quite the opposite and revel in the past. They wanted to do a proper 8 Doctor story, shattering the previous televised records (which was essentially held by The Five Doctors, which, despite its name, had about 3 and a half Doctors).

However, this sort of thing had been attempted by Big Finish before with Zagreus. Zagreus, for those who are unaware, has something of a rather unfortunate reputation about it. The common narrative surrounding why Zagreus flopped so immensely was that it simply had too many Doctors and returning cast members. Indeed, for the long-term Doctor Who fan who defends the upcoming rather New-Who-Centric televised 50th, Zagreus was always a go-to example for the age-old proverb of "Too many chefs spoil the broth."

Challenging this narrative, however, is The Light at The End which, thus far, has received a warmer and much more enthusiastic response. The question here is why? Why did this succeed where Zagreus failed?

Put simply, The Light at The End understood what it was. It was a celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who. Where Zagreus tried to expand upon the universe, in often very interesting ways, it was bogged down by narrative, rather than filled with celebration. When Zagreus was properly celebrating Doctor Who, as-in the rather brilliant recasting decisions, it shined. When it went on about exposition and nothing happened, it failed.

The Light at The End fixes this problem. Before we go into this, I should describe what a beat is. In directing and scriptwriting a beat change is a moment when the perspective of a character, or the audience, shifts in relation to a scene. For an example of one of the most famous beat changes in film history, look to Star Wars Episode V and the infamous "Luke, I am your father" line. Both Luke and the audience, in this moment, had their perception of events change entirely. Beat changes are directly related to the pacing of a piece and are vital to understanding why Zagreus failed where The Light at The End succeeded.

In essence, it saw that the core problem with the previous anniversary celebration was that it relied on glacial, or nonsensical, beat shifts. In Zagreus, the beat shifts never came quickly enough, often relying on people talking and the situation remaining static for huge swaths of time. Likewise, following the intense and emotional beat at the end of Neverland, the story made a nonsensical shift towards the humdrum as the protagonists trapsed about the TARDIS calmly for an hour. It was jarring and made little sense in context of the previous beat.

The Light at The End has no such problems. The beats come quickly, they land well, and they keep the two hours flying by. It felt dynamic, exciting, and fun. The script is also cleverly edited and every single scene, except one short scene with The Master gloating to himself, has a clear intention and purpose. The script does not waste your time as a listener, which is vital.

But, I'm sure you are all wondering, how the script holds up with so many cast members? Well, this is rather brilliant actually. The various Doctors and companions are split up into teams, much like The Five Doctors, and each has their own largely separate stories (that come together well at the end). We see about three or four groups form, which by definition makes the vast cast more manageable. However, due to the nature of The Master's plan, the various companions eventually flicker out of existence, delivering a much more manageable cast as time goes on. But, of course, not before delivering some amazing character interaction with some great combinations. Who knew that Charley and Four could get along so well? It's certainly a combination I would never have imagined working. Or what about Ace and Peri? Or, most tragically, Seven and Peri. As the script goes on, the groups form and the companions drop off, so that the cast actually becomes quite manageable with each group having their own basic section that is laden with Doctor-interaction dialogue. Four and Eight were the highlight for me (and a combination I hope to see much more of someday!), but there was plenty here to like. The “too many chefs” argument falls absolutely apart when the chefs are being overseen properly by both an experienced scriptwriter and, more importantly, an experienced editor and director.

It should also be said that there were some other moments of brilliance with the handling of The Doctors and the large cast. Firstly, and most impressively, the first three Doctors actually have rather a large role – with tons of lines! I was incredibly impressed with this, only expecting Big Finish to give them lipservice and some reused lines from their televised time. However, they got a spot-on impersonator for Three, returned Frazer Hines's Two, and possibly used the wonderful William Russell as One. The interaction between One, Two, and Three is a joy to see and it's wonderful to see how they interact with some of the later incarnations that they have never really gotten a chance to meet in the past. Secondly, it was nice to use the script to allow some “time bleeding” and enable the other companions that were not featured prominently to have some one-liners. We hear Tegan, Susan, Zoe, Jamie, and plenty of others. Even if it wasn't for long, it was still nice for a celebration to bring them all back for that.

One thing you'll notice in this script is that the script compliments the complications inherent in the casting. Mainly that the script and the story allows for the script to simultaneously expand the cast without allowing it to become unwieldy (the one-liner ghostly visions), while also allowing the cast to shrink and become more manageable as the plot goes on.

That said, the script is also necessarily quite simple in nature. The purpose of the script was not to tell a good story, or even a remotely compelling one, but to celebrate the years and the characters that have made the show what it is. One will not come away from this script thoroughly impressed with the plot as in something like Jubilee or Farewell, Great Macedon. The plot is secondary to the celebration here and, in reality, that is precisely what is needed for a good 50th celebration. If one puts too much focus on the plot, as in Zagreus or likely the upcoming televised 50th, the focus comes away from what made the show great in the first place and the characters that helped craft it. This is the one time of the decade when it is fully appropriate, and even ideal, to look back fondly instead of looking forward. And that's where the script shines. It delivers exactly what is needed – tons of character interaction and lovely combinations of Doctors that we would never get to see any other time of the year. This includes the first time we really get to see Four interact with any other Doctor or companion (Tom Baker is an absolute joy here, by the way). It's got enough references and returning characters that any long-term fan will be positively thrilled, but it's a simple enough plot that anyone with a basic understanding of who The Doctors are and what their personalities are like will enjoy it as well. For the casual fan and the dedicated one, there's plenty here to enjoy.

Oh, and get the Limited Edition. Trust me – you'll want to hear it all. There's so much content there.

(You can check out more of Lani's Big Finish and Doctor Who reviews at http://who-reviews.com/dwnews)




The AlchemistsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 26 October 2013 - Reviewed by Ian J Redman

The Alchemists
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Ian Potter
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released: July 2013
One of the most fascinating periods in the Doctor’s life is also arguably the most enigmatic. Before we met the First Doctor and Susan on our TV screens back in November 1963, the duo had unknowable adventures before the TARDIS ultimately brought them to an old junkyard on Earth…

Or at least, almost unknowable. Every now and again, Doctor Who’s various spin-off media has treated us to a glimpse at the Doctor’s earliest days wandering all of space and time, and that includes The Alchemists. Part of Big Finish’s The Companion Chronicles range, the adventure is set prior to Doctor Who’s first televised adventure, and is performed primarily by Carole Ann Ford. Obviously, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are absent from the story, although writer Ian Potter manages to reference them by employing a clever framing device to introduce us to the tale.

One of the most successful things about this story is how well it establishes the setting. Almost immediately after the TARDIS materialises (not as a 1960s Earth police box, although there are signs that the Chameleon Circuit might already be on the blink), the script, sound design and music come together to form a wonderfully evocative production. This is 1930s Berlin, and there is certainly a sense of atmosphere about the opening scenes. The music (by Jim Hamilton and Toby Hrycek-Robinson) is a perfect match for the tone that the script is trying to achieve, and the pacing is also very well balanced. The Alchemists does not rush into things – it spends some time setting up the location and characters, before the story really gets into full swing. Not only does this reflect the style of early 1960s Doctor Who, but it also makes the story incredibly effective. From very early on, we get an overwhelming sense that something really isn’t right – and indeed, this turns out to be the case.

One of the earliest principles of time travel to be established by the TV series was that “You can’t rewrite history, not one line”, so it’s great that this rule plays a huge part in the story. Indeed, Potter truly pays homage to the original intention of the series, with a script which educates about science and history in equal measure. The absence of Ian and Barbara means that we get a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Doctor and Susan prior to An Unearthly Child, and we also see more of the volatile First Doctor, before he was mellowed somewhat by regularly being in the company of humans. Ford’s ‘Doctor’ voice takes a bit of getting used to if you aren’t familiar with it, but once you’ve been listening to it for a while, it becomes quite easy to envisage the First Doctor – in a loose sense, the Doctor’s mannerisms and inflections are there, and Ford captures these without attempting to ‘impersonate’ William Hartnell. In this play, Ford is joined by Wayne Forester as Pollitt (and various other characters). Forester brings great subtlety to his dialogue, and works well alongside Ford. Together, they do an admirable job at bringing 1930s Berlin to life.

Throughout The Alchemists, darkness constantly lurks just beneath the surface. There are times when things become rather sinister, such as Susan recognising what the symbol on a young man’s sleeve would come to represent. But at the same time, there is a great sense of mystery about the whole thing. While the plot itself may not be the most substantial, this is compensated for by the quality of the production – the characters are well-portrayed, and the music and sound design works brilliantly in the context of what the story sets out to do, building up to a tense and thought-provoking finale. The Alchemists is a solid and enjoyable entry in The Companion Chronicles, and a fascinating hint at the adventures that the Doctor and Susan had already experienced before we first met them, nearly fifty years ago.




The Light at The End (UK review)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 25 October 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

The Light at The End
Produced by Big Finish
Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: November 2013
“You know, old girl, sometimes I think you’re probably the finest ship ever to have sailed the Vortex.”

It’s a scene that has played out before our eyes a thousand times- a wearied, eternal time traveller verbally caresses his ship, readying it for a new adventure in the fourth dimension, his gentle care for its complex machinery as unyielding as his faith in the human race. Even after fifty years, however, depending on the talented British thespian cast in the role, this subtle, familiar sequence can still feel fresh, each incarnation of the Doctor developing a unique relationship with his TARDIS and yet at the same time rarely deviating significantly from the established status quo. The Light at the End, Big Finish’s spectacularly ambitious 50th Anniversary Special, similarly lays its foundations in the familiar, what fans have come to expect of the ‘classic’ era, then rapidly subverts those preconceptions in order to tell one of the studio’s most captivating narratives yet.

That the Special’s scribe, Nicholas Briggs, can find the time to craft a cohesive and engaging storyline at all is in itself a notable accomplishment. The prospect of integrating each of the first Eight Doctors, their companions and the ever-villainous Master into one delicately structured drama must have been daunting enough, even before the need arose for the plot to neither ignore nor become too dependent on the programme’s legacy. Briggs is careful in the latter regard, not shying away from throwbacks to 1963, The Three Doctors, Logopolis, The Eleventh Hour and other landmark moments in the show’s history, but simultaneously ensuring that the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth incarnations of our titular hero each have their moment to shine, to remind the listener why this iconic science-fiction drama continued to survive and thrive with them at the helm.

Inevitably, this balance of nostalgia and narrative cohesion which Briggs has struck won’t please everyone. Anniversary tales can often be something of a double-edged sword, in that many fans (perhaps rightly) want as many elements of days gone by to be referenced or have a physical presence within the episode, whereas others desire a storyline which pushes the boundaries of the show’s storytelling. While Briggs fulfils both of these desires to an extent, at the same time he arguably fails to completely excel in either regard. The Daleks, the Cybermen and plenty of companions are barely name-checked here, a stark departure from the nostalgia-fuelled ‘glory days’ of The Five Doctors, and equally the justified blockbuster-esque storyline brings little in the way of heartfelt emotion or dramatically challenging content, falling short of the heights attained in recent televised episodes such as Human Nature and The Doctor’s Wife by some distance.

All’s not lost by any stretch of the imagination, though, for where The Light at the End falters at times in the execution of its audacious Anniversary narrative, it more than compensates the listener with its stellar cast ensemble. Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann each capture the essence of their respective Doctors perfectly, the sheer brilliance of each of their incarnations demonstrated masterfully without the need for CGI or extensive make-up to cover up the age which these five men have gained since their last televised appearances in their role. Try as some fans might to contest against the notion, it is impossible to overlook the unmistakable fact that were these five Doctors to have appeared on-screen in The Day of the Doctor through new rather than archived footage (the latter eventuality all but inevitable), their bare resemblance to their appearance in the 1970s and 1980s would become all too apparent within moments of the viewer catching sight of them. Here, in an audio medium, fans new and old can remember the first eight Doctors in a guise purely rendicative of their original selves and thus worthy of the esteemed thespians who maintain their loyalty to the show decades on from their departure. To paraphrase a much-cited lyric, you can’t always get what you want, but instead, sometimes, you get what you need.

Of course, such as fans would also expect from a Special of this prestigious, rare ilk, the Doctors aren’t alone in their battle with an old foe. Louise Jameson’s Leela, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, Nicola Bryant’s Peri, Sophie Aldred’s Ace and India Fisher’s Charley all join their respective incarnations of the Time Lord, and for the most part they all provide substantial contributions to the wider narrative, even if at times that boils down to a nostalgic rendezvous between old friends and adversaries. Fisher is arguably the most short-changed supporting actress of the piece, relegated to a brief appearance alongside McGann in the opening scenes and a diminished return in the drama’s final moments. Other than that odd case, though, the ‘gals’ find plenty to do here, and not one of them finds themselves reduced to pantomime- screaming while tumbling down a relatively harmless incline, for example- which is always a positive omen in this reviewer’s book.

If only Geoffrey Beevers were so lucky. Returning to the role of the Master in his pre-Logopolis decrepit guise, Beevers’ portrayal is overexaggerated, shallow and dictated by superfluous dialogue which does nothing whatsoever to broaden our perspective on this iconic antagonist. Whereas Steven Moffat no doubt aims to challenge the viewer’s assumptive preconceptions of the character of the Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, it appears in this case that Nick Briggs has simply aimed to cast the Doctor’s arch-nemesis in a purely nostalgic light, neglecting to add any layers of depth in his construction such that Beevers is forced to rival Eric Roberts’ TV Movie portrayal for unreservedly outrageous expressions of evil.

What does prove to be an additional distinctive trait is Briggs’ direction of his own piece. Over the course of Light’s two-hour running time, listeners will ‘visit’ 1960s British homes, pocket universes, various TARDIS control rooms and plenty of other diverse settings, and whether through the eclectic soundtrack or the manner in which Briggs structures the dialogue and exposition, there’s rarely a chance to become lost in terms of where events are taking place in spite of the whistle-stop tour on which the narrative takes us. If this particular special release is anything to go by, then Briggs should definitely consider taking up joint scripting and directorial duties on a more frequent basis.

Like any Doctor Who Anniversary Special before it (indeed, Dimensions in Time knows this better than most), The Light at the End has its share of shortcomings. Like the majority of celebratory episodes that have preceded it, though, this is a drama which is worth the time of any fan, regardless of whether they were present at the time of An Unearthly Child’s broadcast or only just began to tune in with The Name of the Doctor this Spring. This isn’t the most original, stirring or effective instalment of Doctor Who by any means, yet it revels in its familiarity, in taking the scenes we’ve witnessed playing out a thousand times over and putting a glorious new spin on them.

For too long, uncompromising ‘fans’ of the show have lamented the impending absence of the first eight Doctors in next month’s celebratory movie- their focus should always have been on Big Finish, the only studio possessing the ability to bring these timeless characters back to life with no visual blemishes of age or otherwise. Steven Moffat surely knew that he would never even need to resurrect the classic Doctors for his Special- they’ve received their own, spectacular 50th Anniversary epic in The Light at the End, an adventure which does greater justice to the pre-2005 legacy of Doctor Who than a nostalgia-burdened televised outing ever could. It inspires wonder, awe and mystery, just as the show always has, and encourages us to remember how those same feelings came from a mere trip into a near-abandoned junkyard housing a strange blue box half a century ago- after all, that’s how it all started.




Destiny of the Doctor: Death's DealBookmark and Share

Friday, 25 October 2013 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Destiny of the Doctor: Death's Deal
Released by AudioGo
Produced by Big Finish
Written by Darren Jones
Directed by John Ainsworth
Released: October 2013
“I never doubted you. I knew you best of all, and you are so good with dangerous. After me, you’re the greatest!”

It’s only natural, as this momentous 50th Anniversary year races towards its triumphant climax, that fans’ hopes for the remaining releases destined to act as a spearhead for Doctor Who’s celebrations would be high, to say the least. Death’s Deal matches and surpasses these initial expectations with ease, its focus on one of the show’s most popular lead stars just one of several key assets which elevate it beyond many of the other entries in the Destiny of the Doctor range so far. The celebratory year in question may be nearing its end, but judging by this penultimate instalment, there’s plenty of life left in AudioGo’s Who offerings yet.

Most of all, it’s the return of Catherine Tate as both the piece’s narrator and the voice of the feisty and defiant Donna Noble that does this particular era of the programme proud. Tate accurately captures the voices of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, corrupt pirates, thrill-seeking tourists and plenty more visitors to the danger-laden planet of Death’s Deal, each construct possessing distinct qualities to separate from their cohorts thanks to her admirable vocal flexibility at the helm of proceedings. F. Scott Fitzgerald once described his Gatsby protagonist Nick Carraway as finding himself “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible varieties of life”, and in this regard Tate (inadvertently) capably echoes the sense of enchantment or repulsion that a listener can simultaneously exhibit if a drama’s characters are presented so effectively as they are here.

Joining this month’s lead vocalist is Duncan Wisbey, taking on the roles of both the elusive Krux and the conflicted professor Erskine, the latter of whom may have further implications down the line if the Eleventh Doctor’s obligatory message to his predecessor is anything to go by. It’s a shame to admit that Wisbey’s contribution fails to attain the same level of dramatic prowess as that which Tate provides, perhaps due to the dialogue that writer Darren Jones affords his characters coming up short in comparison to that which he affords the likes of the Doctor and Donna. Whereas past secondary contributors to the range such as John Schwab, Evie Dawnay and Tam Williams have excelled with the content they’ve been offered by the various writers on hand, Wisbey’s dialogue often comes off as scarcely more than an after-thought, the necessity of a second cast member likely more of an irritating constraint than anything else for Jones in the course of drafting.

John Ainsworth’s direction, on the other hand, is nothing if not accomplished in every sense of the word. There’s a tangible sense of visual presence to the piece in spite of the nature of its medium, with the atmospheric soundtrack backing Tate’s narration offering up a sensory depiction of the drama’s setting in a more inspired manner than any of the previous Destiny releases. Not since Babblesphere in April has there been an instalment within this range which has exhibited quite so much assured confidence in its approach, be it thanks to its scribe, its central orator or its director, and with the ever-present knowledge of Who’s impending anniversary looming large on this particular release, to see it succeed with such unrestrained vigour is an enriching event for fans such at myself at this stage.

Matt Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor naturally gets his chance to place a mission before his tenth persona, albeit with his speech once again expressed through Tate rather than Smith himself. While the implementation of the current version of the Time Lord into the narrative doesn’t jar with its tone, in contrast to his appearances in Vengeance of the Stones, Smoke and Mirrors and Enemy Aliens, with only one episode remaining in the series, the lack of a greater development in the overall Destiny story arc is concerning. More than ever before, it seems that The Time Machine must resolve plot threads aplenty, while writer Matt Fitton simultaneously attempts to provide a standalone storyline for newcomers. Greater feats than this required balance have been achieved before in the show’s history, meaning that it’s not inconceivable that Fitton will succeed, yet there’s certainly an almighty challenge awaiting him next month thanks to the absence of any major narrative arc progression beforehand.

For now, though, there’s little need to focus too prominently on what Death’s Deal doesn’t offer its listeners in a wider context. In isolation, this is an exemplary addition to the Destiny range, Tate’s narration and Ainsworth’s direction both fine examples of what the most talented contributors to these releases have to offer. If this instalment and last month’s Night of the Whisper can be considered as setting a precedent for what’s to come from the studio in the remainder of 2013 and beyond, then the essential role which AudioGo can still play in expanding the Doctor Who universe has become crystal clear. There would be no greater injustice at this stage than for the studio to collapse under financial pressures. For in AudioGo’s survival could very well lie the show’s future. With their survival, the programme’s immortality can be assured, regardless of on-screen hiatuses or temporary cancellations, thanks to high-calibre releases such as these forever demonstrating the diverse range of layered adventures on which writers and actors can still take the world’s favourite Time Lord fifty years on.

The song of Destiny may be nearing its conclusion, but the story of the Doctor should never end…




The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 24 October 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage
Written by Derek Landy
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 October 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

If this month’s Puffin short story sounds as though it has a hackneyed title then there’s actually a good reason for that. Because the tenth Doctor and Martha rapidly discover – spoiler warnings again here! – that what they really need to investigate is the mystery of The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage: they are apparently trapped in a predictable, Enid Blyton-esque children’s book once read by Martha. In this sub-'Famous Five' world, populated by a jolly group of kids known as the Troubleseekers, the Doctor and Martha have to work out exactly what sort of trouble they’re in.

Derek Landy has created an intriguing scenario, adroitly referring to the Land of Fiction as well as the Doctor’s previous encounters with a certain fictional vampire. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable sections of the tale occurs when the Doctor and Martha tumble crazily through different narratives, suddenly finding themselves in a Stephen King novel, for instance. But the leading difficulty with this kind of tale – whose villain gains his power from readers’ willing suspension of disbelief – is ironically that you can’t suspend your disbelief. You know all along that the unreal worlds will somehow be switched off, that 'reality' will be restored, and consequently this feels more like hearing a shadowy dream recounted than reading a realist narrative.

For me, Landy’s version of the tenth Doctor is slightly off: this doesn’t quite sound like the David Tennant incarnation on occasions, unlike last month’s contribution from Charlie Higson which perfectly captured the ninth Doctor’s speech patterns. This representation of the Doctor says he’ll judge Martha Jones later on for the fact that she’s read the Twilight books, and though the comment may be a joke, it seems as if this rendering of the tenth Doctor has uncharacteristically become a literary snob rather than an open-minded figure. Other moments of dialogue also feel odd, such as the Doctor cursing by saying “seven hells” and remarking on his own "good hair".

At a vital point in his story, Landy offers us a glimpse of the Doctor’s imagination and all the books he’s ever read. If ever there was a candidate for an epic moment of the awesomely sublime then this ought to be it, but instead what we’re given here feels barely less clichéd than the Troubleseekers with their oath and their cheery picnics. This is very much a missed opportunity, all generic fantasy forestland and coloured sky, before changing into a constantly blurring flipbook of shifting scenes. To be fair, this does effectively convey the Doctor’s imagination in the process of overloading his antagonist, but it still feels rather cursory and predictable. The story’s denouement also disappointed me slightly. Its equation of the TARDIS with “the imagination” is well taken, but when a resolution pretty much boils down to shutting the TARDIS door then you can’t help but feel slightly cheated (whether or not this is readable as a tricksily “meta” version of Doctor Who, where going into the TARDIS necessarily means the end of the story).

But perhaps I’m being too negative, just as the Doctor takes a cavalier attitude to the Troubleseekers and sparkly Twilight stuff. On the plus side, Landy gives Martha a strong role in this story; as well as hinting at her romantic interest in the Doctor – resonating with series three – it’s often Martha who works out what’s going on, and who takes risks that propel the story forward (and away from the threat of nothingness). And The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage also features some appropriate monsters or henchmen, neatly called the un-Men, who serve as a physical threat where needed. But having the Doctor be so starkly dismissive of “rubbish” old-fashioned children’s fiction makes him sound more like a contemporary writer than a citizen of the universe who walks (and presumably reads) in eternity. At one point, Landy’s plot relies on the observation that his omnipotent ‘Author’ can’t resist a temptation to insert himself into the story: likewise, the Doctor’s attitudes sometimes feel as if they veer too close to authorial commentary.

This story begins with a clever idea that is smartly developed in a series of ways (although the collision with fairytales might have played better as an eleventh Doctor scenario). It also offers a second pay-off to its title, in the form of an unexpected “haunting”, but nonetheless remains weakened by an overly convenient ending and a depiction of the tenth Doctor that feels slightly too churlish and self-appreciative. In the end, perhaps there just isn’t enough awe-inspiring mystery to this particular haunted cottage.




Summer Falls (CD)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 23 October 2013 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Summer Falls
Produced by AudioGo
Written by Amelia Pond (James Goss)
Read by Clare Corbett
Released: August 2013
“What chapter are you on?”
“Ten.”
“Eleven’s the best. You’ll cry your eyes out!”

Clara Oswald and Artie Maitland, Doctor Who – The Bells of Saint John

Summer Falls is an oddity in Doctor Who’s expansive array of spin-off fiction – and not just because it is presented as an “in universe” book purportedly written by Amelia Williams in the 1950s (aka Amy Pond after her heartbreaking departure from the TARDIS). It is peculiar largely because while you would expect the story to be heavily influenced by Amy’s travels and adventures, it barely feels and reads like Doctor Who at all and is disappointingly small-scale in its breadth of imagination. And if this story is supposedly the same one that is referenced in the Doctor Who episode The Bells of Saint John, then I find it hard to believe it could ever have left an indelible mark on the lives of either Clara or the Maitland children!

The story by true author James Goss is homage to the works of Enid Blyton and CS Lewis, two legendary children’s authors who no doubt had some influence on his desire to write. The first half of the story is reminiscent of Blyton’s children’s mysteries such as The Famous Five, particularly as it focuses on a set of bored children in a country fishing village at the end of the school holidays. The second half very strongly evokes Lewis with its winter wonderland setting, vengeful spirits and talking animals – or more to the point, a talking grey cat. Even the wise and eccentric curator Barnabas channels Professor Digory Kirke in The Chronicles of Narnia as much as the Eleventh Doctor.

Goss handles this children’s tale faithfully but with little ambition or inventiveness. It would be interesting to invite a 10-year old or an adolescent to listen to this story to sum up their thoughts of it as a work in its own right (and not just as a very indirect Doctor Who tie-in) but to my mind Goss, at the bare minimum, recaptures many of the narrative devices that have made Lewis’ and Blyton’s works so enchanting to generations of readers. What he doesn’t do is perhaps drive home more of the actual Doctor Who connection for the fans – and let’s face it, who else is going to buy this release apart from Doctor Who fans?

Sure, there are some superficial similarities between the characters. The enigmatic curator is clearly based on the Doctor (albeit a much diluted, two-dimensional impersonation of the Time Lord’s eleventh incarnation!). The story’s juvenile heroine Kate Webster is modelled on young Amelia Pond herself. You could even put a case that Armand Dass could pass for a young Rory Williams. Perhaps young Kate’s mother, who is constantly having “naps” as an excuse to get out of real work, is loosely based on Amy’s aunt who was her only family after her parents were erased from the web of time. However, it is there that the similarities between the characters end. The story as a whole bears little resemblance to any of Amy and Rory’s adventures and experiences in the TV series. There are certainly no “Easter eggs” in this story that would appeal to the hard core Doctor Who fan, eg no allusions to Weeping Angels, Daleks or Silents. It really is just a generic, two-dimensional and run of the mill 1950s-style children’s fantasy adventure.

The audio reading of Summer Falls by Clare Corbett, however, does make the listening experience more enjoyable. I am not overly familiar with Ms Corbett’s CV (apart from a couple of readings of other Doctor Who and other AudioGO releases) but her narration is engaging and just the timbre of her voice is well suited to particularly the younger characters in Kate, Armand and Milo. She effortlessly changes the pitch of her voice between characters, from adults to children to the fantasy characters (her impression of the grey cat is my favourite!) – and vice versa. It really is as much a performance as a straight reading and Corbett acquits herself well.

But no matter how good a performer the narrator is, that will never disguise the intrinsic inadequacies of a story. As an “in universe” experiment, Summer Falls fails to appease the very audience it is directed at – Doctor Who fans who may have hoped to glean some insight into Amy Pond’s legacy. What they get is a fairly lame children’s story that is unlikely to be read by kids, unless of course they are themselves avid Doctor Who fans. (And again, as this audio book is being marketed under the Doctor Who logo, I cannot see it appealing to listeners who are not Doctor Who fans.) However, if you have young children of your own, Corbett’s entertaining rendition of the narrative may be enough to keep them entertained, if not exactly enthralled.

Which again begs the question: Why do Clara and Artie enjoy Summer Falls so much? Did it really enchant entire generations of children in the Whoniverse? And did Amy Pond really become the equal of Enid Blyton? Clearly, our real world version of Summer Falls is sadly not the same as the Whoniverse equivalent!